The Whitney Museum of American Art opened its doors at its new location—99 Gansevoort Street—on May 1, 2015. Founded by sculpture and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the museum famous for twentieth-century and contemporary art of the United States, first opened on West Eighth Street in 1931. The Whitney later moved uptown and beginning in 1966 was housed in a Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street. In 2008, the trustees of the museum’s board decided that the Whitney needed a new venue after decades of failed attempts to expand the Breuer Building. The decision was made that Renzo Piano, called “a great champion of public space” would design the new venue. Piano has masterminded over two-dozen art museums and is known for this use of light-modulating roofs, expanses of glass, and blond wood.
According to Mr. Piano, “The design for the new museum emerges equally from a close study of the Whitney’s needs and from a response to this remarkable site. We wanted to draw on its vitality and at the same time enhance its rich character. The first big gesture, then, is the cantilevered entrance, which transforms the area outside the building into a large, sheltered public space. At this gathering place beneath the High Line, visitors will see through the building entrance and the large windows on the west side to the Hudson River beyond. Here, all at once, you have the water, the park, the powerful industrial structures and the exciting mix of people, brought together and focused by this new building and the experience of art.”
The Gansevoort Street building possess many differences from its 75th Street predecessor. Rather than containing an insular fortress like structure, separating the outside world from the art and people that are inside, the new building’s transparency and visibility interact with visitors, neighboring buildings and spaces, and the outside world at large. The new building’s strikingly asymmetrical form responds to the industrial character of the neighboring lofts and overhead railway while asserting a contemporary, sculptural presence. At the 75th Street location, each level of the building increased in size the higher it was. Alternatively, the Gansevoort Street locale’s levels decrease in size as they go up (with the 8th floor smaller than the 7th, and so on). As such, the upper levels step back from the High Line, rather than towering over it.
The building, which has approximately 50,000 square feet of indoor gallery space, showcases eight floors of eclectic American Art. On view through September 27th, “America is Hard to See” fills the indoor galleries. The exhibition showcases pieces entirely from the Whitney’s collection, with a goal of reexamining the history of art in the United States from the early twentieth century to the present. The exhibition is arranged thematically, with each floor taking on several different themes in a given time period (for instance, the eighth floor includes works created between 1910 and 1940 and themes include: Forms Abstracted; Music, Pink and Blue; and Machine Ornament). There are over 600 works on display, many of which have rarely (if ever) been shown. Iconic favorites, like Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (which GVSHP’s research has led us to believe was likely based upon 233-237 Bleecker Street, at the corner of Carmine Street), Jasper Johns’ Three Flags, and Andy Warhol’s Green Coca Cola Bottles, of course, are also on view. Additional themes include: Eight West Eighth; Breaking the Prairie; The Circus; New York, NY, 1955; Large Trademark; Love Letter from the War Front; and Course of Empire. The works on the first floor (a gallery free to the public) tell the history of the Whitney from its earliest days on West Eighth Street. The exhibition presents a unique view into the collection, one that (due to the much smaller size of the Breuer Building ) was never before possible.